YOU COULD SENSE the steel entering the spines of Republicans bit by bit.
A year ago, when health care reform was first proposed, the scenario was depressingly familiar. Democrats proposed a huge new entitlement that promised the moon -- more care at lower prices -- and Republicans responded by saying they were for the idea of universal coverage but dubious about the specific proposal the president put forward.
Armed with that concession, the Democrats had a merry time for several months, taunting Republicans to come up with a plan of their own, rather than merely taking pot shots at ClintonCare. Among themselves, Republicans debated angrily about whether a Republican alternative was a political necessity.
Rare was the Republican voice that challenged the very competence of the federal government to improve the health care system of the United States. Rare was the voice that said, "Look, by the president's own admission, Medicare and Social Security are on their way to bankrupting the country. It is crazy to assume that a hair of the dog -- another huge federally controlled entitlement -- will prove the cure to spiraling costs." Rare was the voice that said, "Our health care system -- the world's finest -- is a complex and interlocking maze of medical schools, research hospitals, private clinics, pharmaceutical companies and specialty training that has grown organically for many years. An arbitrary federal rewriting of the rules, including gender and other quotas for specialists [yes, that was in the original Hillary Clinton proposal] cannot help but confuse and confound the system."
But others were doing the necessary spade work to discredit socialized health care. Columnist Charles Krauthammer pointed to the Clinton experiment with early childhood vaccinations for a glimpse of what ClintonCare would look like. The Clintons entered the presidency certain that they could solve the problem of low immunization rates among America's preschoolers. (The Clintons' numbers were wrong from the start. We've already reached the 90 percent goal they set for the year 2000.) The Clintons devised a plan that would require the federal government to buy up vaccines from the drug companies and distribute them free to clinics, which would in turn immunize all of America's preschoolers. Congress scaled back the program to apply only to the poor, those without insurance, those on Medicaid and American Indians.
Well, the federal government had no experience in distributing vaccines (it rejected help from the drug companies). And so it stored the vaccines in a General Services Administration warehouse in New Jersey, thus risking a public health crisis since vaccines must be handled carefully and stored at certain temperatures.
Even if the program does not wind up endangering the health of America's children in the short run, it will do so in the long run. Because the government can purchase an unlimited quantity of vaccine at a controlled price, the private market may dry up completely, thus robbing children of the benefits of private research and development.
Nor was any of this necessary. States with free vaccination programs had no higher rates of immunization than those without. The problem was one of parental laxity and lack of knowledge. Instead of buying up all the vaccine in America and storing it in a musty warehouse in New Jersey, the Clintons could have more modestly proposed a public education campaign.
But modesty is not the mark of liberal Democrats. They reach for power reflexively and then congratulate themselves on their compassion in doing so. The vaccine program is an ice cube compared with the iceberg that ClintonCare or MitchellCare would be.
Republicans have cowered before this technique for too long. In the past few months, though, they have recovered their equilibrium. Sen. Robert Dole opined that if health reform failed to pass this year, the American people would heave a sigh of relief. Rep. Newt Gingrich allowed as how "universal access" was a goal we could move toward, but "universal coverage" could not be achieved without making America into a "police state."
The American people have fallen out of love with big government, and Republican truth telling on the subject will be greeted with enthusiasm. If Republicans have the courage, the health care debate could be the Waterloo of post-war liberalism.
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.